October, Femusings magazine.
This October, Bridget Jones returns, in all her overweight, clumsy, single, useless, calorie-counting glory, in Mad About the Boy, the third in Helen Fielding’s series. Except she doesn’t. Because the sentence I just wrote encapsulates a misconception about Bridget Jones that seems to be shared by just about everybody except Helen Fielding and the (far fewer than you’d guess) people who’ve actually read her books.
‘Bridget Jones’ has entered our vocabulary as a byword for single, neurotic and, yes, fat, modern women. Articles like this one, which imply that her very existence is some kind of defiant defence of being overweight, and the films make us root for a constantly slipping-up Bridget, rather than the snooty, uptight people around her, making her endearing yet frumpy, dim yet lovable.
So it probably sounds far-fetched for me to say that when I first read Bridget Jones’ Diary, I was extremely jealous of her. Not for her ‘defiant fatness’ as the Daily Mail would probably say, nor for her sense of humour in the face of a rubbish life. Rather, it was for the extremely shallow reasons that she is clearly attractive, clever, is reasonably successful in publishing (a notoriously competitive field), has a lot of fun with similarly attractive and successful friends, and is frankly not fat. Not to get too scientific about this, but her weight in the diaries fluctuates between 125 and 131 pounds, which would only be overweight if she were under 5 feet tall. At 125 pounds and 5’9’’, she would actually qualify as underweight. The average weight of a British woman is 154 pounds.
What is clear from the diaries is that Fielding is writing, not about a woman who is deeply flawed and complains about it a lot, but about a woman who, from the outside, probably looks like she is living the dream – but on the inside is convinced that there is something perpetually wrong with her. Noticeably, Bridget lacks any defining characteristics in the books. We know her daily weight and calorie intake, but not her hair colour, or even what other physical attributes she detests or likes about herself. Weight has clearly been chosen by Fielding as an issue that anyone can relate to: deliberate weight loss is an urge to negate yourself, or bits of yourself, in order to become somebody different, somebody better, and is therefore an excellent symbol for all kinds of insecurity. Equally, when Bridget obsesses over clumsy moments, rather than making her sound particularly clumsy, she seems to illustrate how hard we can be on ourselves for relatively minor social gaffes.
Those around Jones in the books don’t seem to buy into her own vision of herself as either socially awful or enormously fat. In fact, for me the most awkward social moment in the books comes when Bridget finally hits her target weight and goes to a party, where an uncomfortable friend says she looks a bit “deflated.” The friend clearly thought she was fine, as Mark Darcy famously says, “just as you are.” The real story arc of the diaries is not the amazement that a man is able to say this about Bridget, but that she finally believes someone could.
If you met Bridget at a party, you would meet someone in their mid-thirties, working in London, single, yes – but who are more fun of the thirty-somethings you know, those who are single or the ‘smug marrieds’ that Bridget actually seems bored by rather than jealous of? Someone who is funny, friendly and (judging by her interest in clothes and makeup) fashionable. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to feel sorry for her.
Fielding deserves to be credited with tapping into the real problem of her generation of women: not weight, or being single, or being clumsy, but being insecure about anything and everything until there are barely any similarities between the person you are and the much lesser person you privately, in diaries, or in your head, believe yourself to be. If most of the population has been taken in by Bridget’s insecurities, then the accuracy of Fielding’s representation should be applauded all the more.